This week I had a conversation with two colleagues on the question of leaders as actors or rather as reactors. The question was ‘how, as a leader, do you know when to step in and when to stay out?’ It’s an important question and one to which, of course, there is no simple answer or prescription.
A huge part of effective leadership is self-awareness and I think that self-awareness is critical to being able to answer this question. If you are attending an event being run by staff in your department and you have not been part of the planning, but you see that some details are clearly awry, what is your first response? To step in? If so, at what level? Do you want to tell people how to fix it, do you fix it yourself, or do you ask for the person in charge? Maybe you hang back and wait to see how it is handled? Any of these responses or many others could be appropriate depending on the circumstances. I’m not suggesting that you need to evaluate and pick the ‘right’ one, but rather that you ask yourself about your inclination – to act or to hold back. It’s important to understand for ourselves what our natural tendencies are. Then we can pay attention to the situation at hand and do a bit of analysis asking whether our natural reaction tends to be more or less helpful to the situation.
Unfortunately, there is really only one way to develop the skill of matching my reaction to the situation and that’s trial and error with analysis. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you have a responsibility and a choice about reacting, pay attention to your first response and then do some analysis. Unless we’re talking about a true emergency, say a fire, there is usually time for a deep breath and a moment of thought. How big a deal is the problem – really? Is it really critical or just your pet peeve? Then comes the important question – which response will be most effective in helping staff members learn and develop in their jobs and as leaders? So often the answer to that question is ‘no reaction’ or the ‘least possible reaction.’ Additionally, the opportunities for learning must be balanced against the harm to the program or people being served. And, of course, sometimes we pick the right response and sometimes we don’t, so analysis after the fact is important as well.
To react or not to react: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of imperfect programs and services
Or to jump in and solve the sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them – or cause many more? …
To try; to err; perchance to succeed, ay, there’s the rub;
For in that attempt we learn and grow
or rob others of their chance, and so,
Must give us pause, to analyze, to think, and to try again.
With apologies to William Shakespeare and Hamlet,